The opioid epidemic is a crisis, it’s an emergency, and thousands of people are dying. In fact, more people have died from the opioid epidemic than the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society is responding to the crisis in their city by creating and operating pop-up safe injection sites. These sites cost about $150 a day to operate and because they don’t receive government funding, they need donations to operate.
Mark Hughes, a recovering addict and comedian from Vancouver created the Safe Injection Comedy Fundraiser in that city to help raise money to support pop-up injection sites. These fundraisers have been successful, so when Mark moved to Toronto, it made sense that he would start the Safe Injection Comedy Fundraiser: Toronto Edition. The show will be held at the 120 Diner, 120 Church Street in Toronto on March 28, 2019. Tickets are $15 at the door.
This episode helped educate me about the opioid epidemic and the grassroots effort to address the crisis. An added bonus was that I got to meet Mark and learn about his comedy and his podcast “Pulling the Trigger.” I hope this episode is helpful to someone in some way, and that listeners will enjoy the time spent with Mark.
00:00 John: This is episode 110 of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast.
00:23 John: In today’s episode, I’ll be speaking with Toronto comedian Mark Hughes, host of the Safe Injection Comedy Fundraiser to be held on March 28th at the 120 Diner in Toronto, Ontario. All proceeds from the comedy fundraiser will be donated to the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society. I enjoyed my conversation with Mark. It was interesting to learn about the safe injection sites in Toronto and the life-saving work carried out by the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society. Mark’s personal story and his passion for helping others is both moving and inspiring.
I’m here with Mark Hughes, a recovering addict, comedian and podcaster, and I believe a social advocate. Mark, how you doing?
01:06 Mark Hughes: I’m good, I hate that word advocate.
01:10 John: I don’t know, as I was…
01:12 Mark Hughes: It’s your podcast, you can call me whatever you want, baby.
01:14 John: Okay. [chuckle] As I was learning about you, though, I thought, “Wow,” because you really care about the subject that we’re going to be talking about. You’re here today to tell us about a fundraiser that will be taking place on March 28th at the 120 Diner in Toronto.
01:30 Mark Hughes: Yup.
01:30 John: It’s a safe injection comedy fundraiser and it’s going to benefit the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, is that right?
01:38 Mark Hughes: That’s right, yeah.
01:39 John: So, why don’t you talk about this? I know that you… I guess, you did one of these in Vancouver. Is that how this whole thing started?
01:46 Mark Hughes: Yeah, I did two in Vancouver. So, I’m a recovering addict. I’m a recovering IV drug user, cocaine and heroin. I was on the Downtown Eastside. I’ll just give you the brief version to get into the how I started doing these fundraisers. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve died of drug overdose in the last… Since about 2016, end of 2015, 2016. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve died. Like, when I say a lot, I’m talking about, it’s probably, it’s over 100 now.
02:18 John: God.
02:19 Mark Hughes: I know more people who’ve died in the last few years of drug overdose than I did when I was actively using drugs on the streets, and not just a few more, like 10 times more. That’s how bad the epidemic is. So what happened was, I was thinking how… I know so many people are dying. And in Vancouver at the time we had this thing, these things called pop-up safe injection sites, “pop-ups… ” Oh, is this video recorded?
02:48 John: Well, I do have a video, but I’m not recording it.
02:51 Mark Hughes: So it’s just audio?
02:51 John: Yeah, just audio.
02:52 Mark Hughes: Okay, so for the listeners, “pop-up safe-injection sites” and what those were, were, in Canada, what are known as supervised injection sites are legal under certain parameters. So that’s where you’re allowed to consume drugs legally and there are medical staff around to intervene should something happen, like an overdose. And the problem was, the amount of drug use in Vancouver… Well, all over the place, but really Vancouver is so… The volume of drug use is so high that the legal safe injection site, which is known worldwide as Insite, couldn’t accommodate all the people.
03:34 John: Wow.
03:34 Mark Hughes: And there are still a huge amount… It can only take 25 people at a time, and if you ever went down to the Downtown Eastside where it is, there’s way more people than that. So people were still dying. So some people started… They just… Basically, they got some Narcan, naloxone, an opioid antagonist which reverses an overdose and just kind of put up a little spot where people could use and, “Hey, if you want to get high, we’ll watch and just… If anything happens we’ll intervene.” And it’s known as a pop-up safe injection site. Technically, they were illegal. Technically, they still are illegal, because you have to get… There’s a bunch of regulations and stuff. You have to get permission and authority from the government, the federal government here in Canada. Now, the police weren’t… They had an agreement with the police, that the police wouldn’t enforce the law while people were doing that, so they just… because they understood this is a problem and they don’t need to… It’s too small of a thing. It would do more harm than good to be arresting people using drugs, right?
04:39 John: Sure.
04:40 Mark Hughes: Problem was, they couldn’t get funding. So Insite gets government money, because it’s government sanctioned. The pop-up safe injection sites were… They’re basically punk rock, community grassroots. But these… In order to keep demand or the supplies, the dah-dah-dah-dah, they need to… Money. It costs money to do all that. So they were relying on donations and GoFundMes and I thought, “Well, I could put on a comedy show and raise money.” And what the final nail in the coffin, as it were, for when I decided I gotta do something about this was, I was getting a picture taken for a newspaper story about me, because I’m a recovering addict who does comedy.
05:26 John: Right.
05:27 Mark Hughes: Oh, it’s so exciting. And I’m facing you like I am right now, so you’re the photographer. To my left, if you were the photographer you could have seen it because I kind of heard a commotion behind me. Someone was overdosing.
05:41 John: Oh, God.
05:42 Mark Hughes: That’s how frequent it is, down there, right?
05:44 John: Wow.
05:44 Mark Hughes: And it’s just this contrast, this juxtaposition, whatever you want to call it, when, here I am getting this picture taken for this article and there’s someone maybe going to die. He didn’t die, but could have, right?
05:58 John: Right.
05:58 Mark Hughes: He turned blue, right? And, yeah, so then I did it and I did one and I did two. So now that organization, which was called the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver, they do receive government funding now. So they don’t need donations as heavily as they used to. That was 2017, I did the last one. Fast forward to now, I moved to Toronto, just a few months ago, in November, and they have a Toronto Overdose Prevention Society here, too. And they have some safe supervised and… Supervised consumption, safe injection, whatever you want to call them, sites here, but they also have a few pop-up ones. The government here in Ontario, which is the province, that’s sort of like a state for American listeners, is more conservative. I’m nonpartisan with all the shit.
06:51 John: I hear, I hear you. But yeah, it’s more conservative than the West Coast.
06:55 Mark Hughes: Yeah. And I don’t mean just conservative politically, it’s socially, it’s more conservative.
07:00 John: Okay.
07:00 Mark Hughes: Pop-up safe injection sites are still kind of a… I don’t want to say controversial, necessarily, but they’re not… The public hasn’t totally accepted and embraced them.
07:10 John: Okay.
07:10 Mark Hughes: Again, not necessarily condemning them but it’s not as embedded in the cultural landscape as Insite, like everyone in Vancouver knows about the safe injection site, it’s just kind of given that they have them. Anyway, the pop-up safe injection sites here are not getting government funding and probably aren’t going to any time soon. And the other problem is, is while there are quite a few overdoses here, the population is a lot bigger here, and the rate of overdose per pop… Compared to the population is lower here. So, and I’ve seen how the media reports it here, too. It doesn’t get the headlines in the front pages, like it did in BC. Like in BC, you can’t talk to anyone who doesn’t know what fentanyl is.
07:54 John: Yeah.
07:55 Mark Hughes: You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know someone, directly or indirectly, who died of a drug overdose.
08:01 John: Wow.
08:01 Mark Hughes: Here in Toronto, I was at a comedy show and I have jokes about fentanyl and stuff like that, and someone didn’t know what fentanyl was. I couldn’t believe it. They’re like, “What is fentanyl?” And I thought because… I assumed because Vancouver had gotten national and international news regarding the overdoses, because I assumed that everyone, but no, it hasn’t permeated the culture or social awareness like it had as it is here. I’ve actually had a hard time getting any kind of response from the media here, which I find shocking, too, because in Vancouver, the first time I did it and the second time, I just posted a post on Facebook saying, “I am doing a fundraiser,” and I got inundated with media requests.
08:42 John: Wow.
08:42 Mark Hughes: Yeah. Yeah. And the thing I don’t understand is, even if you don’t give a shit about this, overdose, comedy, combine them. Click.
08:50 John: Yeah.
08:50 Mark Hughes: Why isn’t it like this? That was something people would click on just to see.
08:53 John: Right.
08:53 Mark Hughes: Yeah, but no interest here.
08:55 John: Yeah.
08:56 Mark Hughes: I don’t understand it.
08:57 John: But it is a problem in Toronto. I was looking at some statistics of paramedics’ responses to overdoses and it’s pretty significant, the number of overdoses they have to respond to and the number of those where they are fatal. I think there were like 3,000, over 3,000 calls, responses, totally in 2018, if I remember right, and a fraction of those were fatal.
09:26 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
09:26 John: Part of the… And those are just the ones where paramedics respond. So you know that there are plenty where nobody knows.
09:34 Mark Hughes: Yeah. Well, the people who usually die of a drug overdose were using alone somewhere, or somewhere that was not near where or maybe not… Near is maybe not the right word, but in a place where medical or some kind of intervention was less likely to happen, right?
09:57 John: So there are four safe injection sites, I believe, in Toronto.
10:02 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
10:02 John: And those are sanctioned. So the ones that aren’t sanctioned, the pop-ups, do the police just tolerate those?
10:07 Mark Hughes: Yeah. Same thing. Yeah.
10:09 John: Okay.
10:09 Mark Hughes: It’s by and large, most agencies, whether they be mental health, law enforcement, social work, for the most part, see drug use, drug addiction, all these things as a health concern more than a criminal thing now, that’s… Now, anyone listening, might be, “But there was this time and… Yeah, yeah.” I know there’s exceptions and it’s not always treated like that, but I would say generally speaking, it’s not seen as a criminal or something that law enforcement really needs to get involved in.
10:44 John: Yeah. And I agree that that’s the way it should be. You mentioned in one of your podcasts that when you compare it to the AIDS epidemic, there are more people dying of the opioid crisis than of the AIDS epidemic, and addiction is far more difficult to treat.
10:57 Mark Hughes: Yep, also in order… So whenever studies are done and they’re doing research on how to resolve this issue, they draw comparisons and parallels between the AIDS epidemic and this, but this is a lot harder to socially address for so many different reasons, because the AIDS epidemic… This might be over-simplistic, but if people use protection while they’re having sex that’s, then that can reduce it. Drug research can help awareness of safer sex practices because people have sex, that’s not going to stop and that’s great. Sex is awesome. It’s hard to get people to stop using drugs, though.
11:38 John: Exactly.
11:38 Mark Hughes: And I’m not saying people should stop using drugs, but it’s not something where you can go… Even providing safe consumption sites, awareness, you’re still taking fentanyl or Carfentanil. It’s a poison, basically, even though it gets you really high and it feels really great, it’s a substance that can kill you and the nature of addiction and drugs and drug use and all this kind of stuff… It’s not like people are sitting there in a laboratory with coats and clipboards going, “Okay, no, that’s one microgram too much before they do a fix,” right? It’s just… And people claim, “Oh, if it was legalized, it would… ” I don’t personally believe that if it was legalized all of a sudden the world would be a utopia. There would be less deaths, there would be less problems, but I think people… There would be more medical, there would be access to drugs that would be… You would know the purity and all this kind of stuff, but people would still use drugs.
12:36 John: Yeah.
12:37 Mark Hughes: And there would still be overdoses. Probably not as many, but there still would be. And I think a lot of people… It makes it… They make it… They always say, “Well, look what they did in Portugal, look what they did in Portugal.” But even people in Portugal have said that it helped, but it wasn’t necessarily… It’s not a utopia either. Drug addiction, even if the government’s giving me my drugs and I know that their not dirty and I don’t overdose and I don’t have abscesses and I’m not contracting diseases and stuff like that. If I’m getting high all day every day, am I leading the life that I truly, heart of hearts, want to lead? I’ll leave that question open, because I don’t want to speak for other people’s experiences and stuff like, but I just… The point I’m making is drug use, the parallels between AIDS and drug use, there are some, but eventually they diverge and they’re definitely not the same thing. That was…
13:30 John: No, you’re right about that. And the gay community was able to help each other during that early time, because there was no one else helping them. Whereas with the addicts, really don’t have the way to… [chuckle]
13:41 Mark Hughes: They help each other. A lot of these pop-up injection sites, and even the ones that are government-sanctioned, are manned, staffed by drug users and people who are part of these communities.
13:54 John: Okay, that’s cool.
13:54 Mark Hughes: So they have the naloxone. So they’re helping each other. Here’s the problem I see that’s different. The biggest problem that I see that’s different than the AIDS epidemic versus drug addicts is… Although an argument could be made, and it’d be accurate, that back in the ’90s, ’80s and ’90s, homosexuality and gay people weren’t as socially acceptable, it was easier to accept them than a junkie.
14:20 John: Yeah, right.
14:21 Mark Hughes: And I don’t think that’s going anywhere anytime soon, to be honest. I think progress has been made, a lot of people are more aware of drug addiction. And what got the media attention in Vancouver is when suburban, middle-class, normal people started dying of drug overdoses. Lots of people were dying before that, but it took that to start getting and the quote-unquote tainted drug supply. That’s big. That’s what the rock and roll issue was in Vancouver is, “Oh, you could just be a regular person and die now, not just a junkie.” And then, the media was mis-reporting. They were making it sound like the drugs were intentionally contaminated and stuff like that. That wasn’t exactly accurate either. They also were making it… They didn’t report that people were purposely seeking out fentanyl either, that fentanyl had essentially replaced heroin as the opioid of choice. The media with a bunch of this stuff has inaccurately some things, and that’s another thing that’s caused a problem, right?
15:22 John: But I didn’t know much about fentanyl, and I was listening to your podcast and you mentioned that it just takes the size of a match, the head of a match, to kill…
15:32 Mark Hughes: That might be too much, yeah. Oh, for a few of us, yeah, yeah.
15:36 John: And is it being put into other drugs? Is that how it’s being used?
15:42 Mark Hughes: What the problem is, the reason is a lot of… It’s not like people are cutting cocaine with fentanyl, it’s more that because fentanyl, such a small amount, dust particles, really, dissolved just… Basically, what they call it is cross-contamination. So if I weigh up some coke on a scale, cocaine, and I don’t clean it off properly… Or, sorry, start with the fentanyl, weigh up some fentanyl, then if I don’t clean it off properly and then I weigh up coke, the coke’s now contaminated, because it doesn’t take very much. So it’s more being stored or prepared near each other is what causes it, and that’s it, it’s all it takes.
16:30 John: Wow. And is it coming from China?
16:33 Mark Hughes: That’s one source. Some of it. Some people say it’s from Mexico too, but a lot of the stuff in BC is from China, because you can mail order it.
16:41 John: Wow.
16:41 Mark Hughes: There’s some conspiracy theories that the Chinese are… Well, they use it to launder money, and there is sort of a culling of the herd which then make it easier to gentrify, to kill all the people off, buy the property when it’s at low, and then develop when the property’s higher. It’s a conspiracy theory, there’s no evidence for this stuff. Some of those things that I mentioned, there are direct correlations. Big investigations have been done about money laundering for drugs and the source of the fentanyl. Now, the motives behind all of it, that can’t be proven, but it isn’t that far of a stretch. Yeah.
17:23 John: Can you describe what one these safe injection sites is like?
17:28 Mark Hughes: So the pop-up ones are usually a tent, a tent, the same kind that you’d rent for a barbecue in your backyard or a park, that type. Some of them are in portables, little trailers, if you know the type. Like the school trailer where they have… Inside, there’s some tables and some chairs and drug-using supplies, such as syringes, alcohol swabs, water, armbands or tensor bands for tying off the arm, vitamin C packets if you’re breaking down certain types of opioids or crack cocaine, and then they just have staff kind of just sitting around. They’re there to shoot the shit too. They’re kind of half social worker thing as well, but mainly just to supervise, and if anything happens, they respond.
18:18 John: Okay.
18:18 Mark Hughes: Yeah, and they’ve got Narcan or naloxone.
18:21 John: And that’s what’s used to stop the overdose. And it works?
18:26 Mark Hughes: Yeah, yeah. So far, as far as I know, last time I looked, in Canada at least, there hasn’t been one death in a supervised or safe injection site.
18:35 John: Okay.
18:36 Mark Hughes: There have been lots of deaths elsewhere, but not on a… At a supervised or safe injection site.
18:39 John: So I’m an alcoholic, I’m a recovered alcoholic, and I didn’t really do drugs, except for maybe pot. And so, with alcohol, even during the worst of my drinking, it almost felt like there was some kind of a social aspect to it. But when you’re getting to this addiction and you’re going to one of these safe sites, is… Is there that element of it, or is it just you’re there to get a fix, you’re there to get what you need? You know what I’m saying? I mean, are the people…
19:11 Mark Hughes: It’s not like a bar. It’s not like a bar.
19:12 John: Okay. It’s not like a bar. It’s not like… So it’s… I don’t know what I’m trying to say.
19:17 Mark Hughes: The major difference… Okay. I got clean and sober in the alcohol fellowship, but that’s because the drug one wasn’t really that prevalent with the community I did. I’m a drug addict, though. Don’t get me wrong. I can’t drink, either, shit happens. But I’m a drug guy, always was. The major difference between alcoholics and drug addicts mainly, other than the social acceptance and legality, there’s more trauma involved with people who use drugs, generally speaking.
19:47 John: Yeah.
19:47 Mark Hughes: If you took an alcoholic and a drug addict, especially IV drug use, probably higher than 50-50 odds that the drug addict was probably abused at some point, and I don’t just mean like a spanking. I mean, sometimes sexual.
20:05 John: Serious.
20:06 Mark Hughes: Something serious, right. Often coming from more poverty or foster care or something like that, right? Whereas, alcoholics have by and large, generally speaking… I know people might get “You know, that’s not me,” but generally speaking, tended to kind of lead more “normal” lives for the most part. The biggest problem was the booze and the problems that came along with the booze. And yes, alcoholics also drink for the feeling like fitting in, all that kind of stuff. But there’s a speaker, his name’s… Fuck, I can’t remember what his… Chris… I think it’s Chris R, he’s a AA speaker. Heard him on a tape one time. He says, “For anyone who says that an alcoholic and a drug addict are the same, listen to a crackhead’s step 5. And it’s like, “Yeah.” I know what he means when he says that, right? Like there’s just other stuff. So, to answer your question, at the safe injection sites, it’s people are just in, out, do the fix, get up.
21:03 John: Yeah. It’s not a part of it.
21:04 Mark Hughes: Hang out and talk a little bit. It’s not… Okay. It’s a bit more like a bar than you might think it is, but it’s not exactly like a bar either.
21:12 John: Okay.
21:13 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
21:13 John: because it seem to me, it’s like a medical… It’s a place to go to be safe, basically, and I guess you would call this harm reduction.
21:20 Mark Hughes: Yes.
21:21 John: That would fall into harm reduction.
21:22 Mark Hughes: That’s supervised… Methadone, Suboxone, those are what are called opioid-replacer drug replacement therapies, and safe injection sites are the face of harm reduction. So that when people think of harm reduction, those are the things that people think about, right?
21:41 John: Yeah.
21:41 Mark Hughes: Harm reduction means a lot more than that, but those… And unfortunately, because those sort of drug replacement and safe injection sites, because they are the faces or the things that get the most airtime about harm reduction, they’re also the most controversial, right?
21:57 John: Okay. Well, they save lives. The safe injection sites definitely save lives, and there’s research to back that up.
22:02 Mark Hughes: Yes. Absolutely. The data shows that it reduces disease transmission, improves overall health and quality of life in people who use drugs, and no one’s died of a drug overdose since. Inside Vancouver, I don’t think anyone’s ever died there.
22:20 John: That’s good.
22:20 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
22:21 John: And it also connects people with other people.
22:24 Mark Hughes: It also connects people with other people, so you aren’t using alone, for immediate safety and you’re not as socially isolated. And most of these services, ostensibly… There’s a bit of controversy around that and I’ll get to that in a little bit. Ostensibly and often, actually do connect people with services that they might need, such as a detox, such as a rehab, such as housing, such as all these things, right?
22:52 John: Yeah. Well, I tell you, I could personally support something like that. I don’t know how controversial harm reduction is amongst people that I might know in recovery, and maybe it’s controversial.
23:03 Mark Hughes: I’ve found, in Vancouver and Canada, but my experience mainly is in Vancouver. Check back with me in a year, I’ll tell you what it’s like for real in Toronto. There’s a divide… I know down in your neck of the woods, you know how in the United States, you have your right and left in politics?
23:23 John: Right, yes.
23:26 Mark Hughes: Yeah. Up here we have abstinence and harm reduction.
23:28 John: Okay.
23:31 Mark Hughes: If you think guns or trans bathrooms was a fucking debate, you should see the abstinence versus harm reduction. Both camps have their evangelicals too, both camps have their radicals. So, you’ll have the abstinence people, which tend to be 12-steppers, yeah?
23:52 John: Right.
23:52 Mark Hughes: This is an agnostic-based podcast.
23:54 John: It is, yeah. I’m an atheist.
23:56 Mark Hughes: So you know what I’m talking about when we talk about the fucking evangelical maniacs.
24:00 John: Yeah, they’re kind of dogmatic.
24:01 Mark Hughes: Yeah, I…
24:01 John: They have this dogmatic idea that this is the only way, right.
24:05 Mark Hughes: So they get like that and you know, the only people who the 12 steps never work for are the ones who didn’t try it and it’s like…
24:12 John: Right, right.
24:13 Mark Hughes: All that shit, right?
24:14 John: God didn’t shine on them.
24:16 Mark Hughes: Blah, blah, blah, right? You didn’t want it bad enough and blah, blah, right?
24:20 John: Yeah.
24:21 Mark Hughes: Harm reduction is just enabling… Why wouldn’t you… You need to help people get to their bottom faster, not help them be… This kind of shit, right? Also, you know how 12-step groups can be. In theory, they’re very benevolent. But in practice, you get the wrong group together, and they can actually do more harm than good and drive people, right?
24:46 John: That’s true.
24:46 Mark Hughes: And then there’s predatory people and all this fucking shit.
24:50 John: Right. There are problems.
24:51 Mark Hughes: Oh, yeah. I’m a proud member of 12-step groups and any criticism I’ve ever heard, I’m like, “Yeah.” All I can do is just try not to do that shit, that’s the best I… Maybe call it out if I see it, right? However, the harm reduction people aren’t innocent either. They sometimes don’t think abstinence is realistic or possible.
25:13 John: Oh, okay.
25:14 Mark Hughes: Have you ever heard the term “soft bigotry of low expectations?”
25:17 John: Yeah, I have heard that.
Visit Mark’s website markhughescomedy.com. Consider booking him for your next roundup or conference.25:18 Mark Hughes: Okay, they do that sometimes, so lot of the people work in harm reduction are staff who are like, end up sort of treating their clients as children, kind of… And they’re like, “There, there, it’s okay, you don’t need… ” And they don’t hold them accountable, and they start… They tend to… Again, this isn’t everybody, but this is their version of the radical bullshit that happens is… It’s never the drug user’s fault or responsibility. It’s always something else, society, the government, the patriarchy, colonialism. And any attempt to say, “Hey man, like maybe snatching purses and leading this life isn’t necessarily the healthiest thing, that’s like rape or something.” Right? Like, now, you’re interfering with their agency, so…
26:09 Mark Hughes: And then they say, anyone who’s in 12-step is actually doing more harm than good and abstinence isn’t realistic. The data doesn’t show it. We shouldn’t even be mentioning it. The one part I agree with, when they say abstinence shouldn’t necessarily be promoted, as we are in a… This is a crisis. Abstinence, for most opioid users in the short-term, is impossible.
26:32 John: Right.
26:33 Mark Hughes: To just go, “Grrr, just get a big book and fucking pray and… ” No, not going to happen. Like the day… With opioid use, you need to get them physically… So probably, ideally, in an ideal world, we start them off on a drug replacement such as Methadone or Suboxone to deal with the physical withdrawal, and then take it from there. because the problem is is then people try and just cut themselves off, their tolerance goes down. Oops, have a bad day in the detox, go out dead. That is the most susceptible population to drug overdose are people getting out of jail, and people and who attempt, who are… Somehow, for whatever reason, attempting abstinence, whether forced on them or not, right, because they develop tolerance.
27:18 John: Yeah, yeah, so that whole thing about the debate within the recovery community I think is kind of everywhere, that the problem is that people think that there’s only one way, and it’s my way. And I think the truth of the matter is, if you look at research, is there isn’t any just one way at to treat addiction. You really have to tailor it for a individual’s need, because it’s a very complex disease. So…
27:44 Mark Hughes: Research actually shows that most people who have substance abuse issues eventually just stop on their own.
27:50 John: Yeah, that’s true.
27:52 Mark Hughes: Yeah, yeah.
27:52 John: Isn’t that interesting?
27:53 Mark Hughes: They age out, as they say.
27:55 John: I know, and a lot of people say when they talk about AA, too, or any of the 12-step programs, they’ll say, “Studies show that that’s not really effective treatment,” but it’s really not supposed to be treatment. It’s supposed to be support. So I don’t know.
28:10 Mark Hughes: And I am a die-hard, I’m a lifer in the 12 steps. I’ll never stop going, I don’t go as much as I used to, but I’ll never stop going. What it did for me more than… Like, I’m abstinent now, coming up on 13 years, but that wasn’t the miracle, it’s cheesy. What it was, I got out of prison, and I had a place to go.
28:30 John: Yeah.
28:30 Mark Hughes: You learn how to drive a car. They taught me social skills, they invited me into their homes, all this, like they helped me when I was fucked up and wanted to kill myself or go back to prison. They talked me through all that. I had friends who’d take me out for coffee and we’d joke around and make fun of stuff and I was like, I need… The abstinence part at that point was actually the easy part.
28:50 John: Yeah.
28:51 Mark Hughes: It was that… Not using drugs for the last few years leading up to my… To getting sober and a bit before. Abstinence I could do, I didn’t want to use drugs anymore, but I had… I didn’t, it had been my life for so long, I didn’t know what to… I didn’t believe I could ever be a member of society, not really. because I could never reconcile, how do you not use drugs and not do crime, but also go to work? I didn’t think I could do that in Anonymous the… The unnamed 12-steps taught me how I could do that.
29:26 John: Yeah, it puts you in touch with people that will care about you, when nobody else will, and you’re with people who can identify with you. It’s a support network is what it is. And I think that’s what helped me too. So, let’s talk about you a little bit. I’m interested in not necessarily what got you in prison or your experiences there, but the difficult part of transitioning from and to doing what you’re doing now. So how did you become a comedian going from where you were to where you are?
29:54 Mark Hughes: Alright, okay. I’m glad you asked that question the way you did. because everyone always wants to know, “What’s prison like? Did you get raped while you were in there?” It’s all this fucking shit. Yeah, and a couple actually ask me that all the time. They ask me that so much, if I got raped while I was in prison, I actually wrote a fairly long bit about how, when would you ever ask anyone else that? I’m not going to tell the joke, you fuck.
30:18 John: Right, okay.
30:20 Mark Hughes: So, the hardest part about doing time is getting out, hands down, re-acclimatize. Once you’re in prison for a year, fuck that. In your mind, psychologically, that’s your home anyway. So it just is what it is. It’s like moving to a different town. Yeah, you just… Like let’s say you had to up and go one day for a walk and you didn’t want to go, and you went to the place you didn’t want to go. Given enough time, even if you didn’t love it, you’d just be like, “Okay, I live here now, right?” Same with prison. But then you get out, and then assume you’re supposed to be law-abiding, and all this kind of stuff, when you do try and do that, I would say I’ve heard the United States and Canada are different in this regard. So, Canada is more socialist, more humanitarian… No, I don’t want to say humanitarian, but the rehabilitation, reintegration is more on… Is more the prime directive.
31:15 John: We’re real punishment-oriented in the United States.
31:15 Mark Hughes: Yeah, yeah.
31:16 John: We make it hard for a person to ever find a life again.
31:18 Mark Hughes: Okay.
31:19 John: Yeah.
31:19 Mark Hughes: Canada presents itself as this kind of world leader in corrections because they’ve adopted the best parts of all these correctional systems, right? It’s fucking bullshit, though, it’s run by bureaucrats. That’s the socialist part, that’s like the bad part of this socialist part. It’s just… They’re not necessarily trying to punish and… But they’re not necessarily helping either. It’s more like… They have all these programs that are meant to help, but they actually… Typical bureaucratic red tape just to make it more fucking complicated, and then you get the kind of social worker… I was recording a podcast, just before, my podcast I was recording yesterday and we were talking differences. Canada is very middle class, it’s a middle class country, and I don’t just mean economically, I mean culturally too, right?
32:04 John: Yeah.
32:05 Mark Hughes: It’s not common for people here to know someone who’s been in prison. The average part of society, whereas, down in the States, fucking everyone knows somebody. It’s not that unusual down there, right?
32:15 John: Right. [chuckle]
32:15 Mark Hughes: Which, that’s a different discussion because…
32:18 John: Right. That’s a problem in itself.
32:20 Mark Hughes: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
32:20 John: We put so many people in prison.
32:21 Mark Hughes: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Health, age could be called into question because of that, but anyway, so you get out in a country like Canada, it sounds like, “Okay. That’s it. I’m going to be a law-abiding member of society. The world is mine now.” Wrong. It’s not easy to integrate, how do you talk to people about like, “Where have you been for the past few years?” And then, unlike what I imagine it’s like in the States where Uncle Joe’s been in prison, “I know old Uncle Joe, I know what that’s like.” Here, you tell people you’ve been in prison, generally speaking, you’re the first person they’ve ever met who’s been in prison, especially the cities, right? because, again, the class system here is such that if you’re kind of below the middle class, you’re never around the middle class. It’s not integrated, it’s not… Canada prides itself on being multicultural and diverse… It’s bullshit, it’s not totally true.
33:15 Mark Hughes: I would say that the diversity, the missing piece of diversity in Canada doesn’t have to do with complexion, gender, sexual orientation. It’s more, it’s class and values. So, you could have a trans person, a black person, an Asian person, a gay person, all hanging out in a group and you’d see them at the bar or the coffee shop, and you’d think, “Oh, wow! Look at that. Isn’t that diverse?” But if you closed your eyes and you just listened to them, they sound the same. [chuckle] You know what I mean?
33:47 John: Right.
33:47 Mark Hughes: They don’t really disagree on anything. They have the same political and social point. And then here, I find that if you’re different and then again, class, it’s this class-ship. If you don’t talk the right way, that actually causes it to be harder here, which is, if you know anything about class, middle classes, it’s always been the one that is the hardest because they’re kind of the… The middle class is sort of the vanguard of the elite. So, I don’t want to… I hate to sound like this, but this is just something of… I didn’t mean to learn all this. This is integration, what I learned I had. I had to learn, because I was like, “Why is it so fucking hard to integrate?” So the middle class kind of… They’re the consumers mostly, right? They are the ones that… They sort of control the culture and the middle class tends to really like things to be status quo and we don’t want to be upset. We don’t want to hurt anyone. Presentation is a big thing with the middle class, right?
34:43 John: Yeah.
34:43 Mark Hughes: What do the neighbors think? So, there I go, Mark ex-convict Magoo, fucking who doesn’t know anything about political correctness, and I’ve just spent the last fucking number of years in my life trying to talk the way you do. I’m alienating myself because I don’t know how to talk to these people. My intentions were good. I’m trying to be a law-abiding… For the first time in my life, I’m really trying to be a law-abiding member of society, but I don’t know how to fucking talk to these people, right?
35:13 John: Right.
35:13 Mark Hughes: Very difficult. Getting the job part, that was hard, but I eventually got that. Getting the place to live, that was hard but I eventually got that. The sort of survival things, the lowest rung on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I got that shit.
35:28 John: So you’ve got that now.
35:29 Mark Hughes: Yeah, still do, but the next one up, connecting with people, which is almost as crucial as the food, shelter, right? I couldn’t get that. AA, or, sorry, the unnamed…
35:41 John: The 12 steps.
35:43 Mark Hughes: The 12 steps helped with that. The problem was, though, call it arrogance, call it whatever you want to call it, I didn’t like being relegated to a sort of subset of society.
35:54 John: I kind of like that too. I feel that way too.
35:57 Mark Hughes: I didn’t want to… And I’m not shitting on the 12 steps, but I didn’t…
36:00 John: Right.
36:00 Mark Hughes: I just sorta knew, it’s like, really? Is this it? I can only hang out here?
36:05 John: I hear exactly what you’re saying, I kind of feel kind of boxed in sometimes. The name I gave the goddamn podcast. [laughter] So, anyway.
Mark’s podcast, “Pulling the Trigger” is awesome. Check out Episode 4 “Kyle” the Drug Dealer.36:16 Mark Hughes: So, and I wanted to do things that were just I’d never done before. I didn’t even know the things I’d never done before but I didn’t want to just be, “It’s gotta be a sober this, it’s gotta be a recovery that, it’s only recovery talk.” So I started experimenting with things to try just to… Okay, what do people do? They hike, they have hobbies, they fucking… I tried volunteering, I tried improv, I tried… And then one day, I was doing a set of steps with a guy and he just sort of… He just was able to intuit that I needed some kind of creative outlet. Me, Mark Hughes, needed a creative outlet. And people had told me for… I think he meant like oil painting or pottery, or something like that, but people had told me for years, “You’re funny, you’re funny.” When I’d share at meetings, I’d get people laughing and I don’t just mean kind of, they’d laugh a lot, right?
37:05 John: Right.
37:06 Mark Hughes: because I’d say fucked up shit. That was kind of… Well, mostly true, but you’re not supposed to say that, but it was true, right? And I was never the type of guy who shared and trying to make it look all great. I’d talk about the fucked up things that were happening in my recovery and stuff like that. So I decided to… I enrolled in a stand-up comedy class. I wasn’t trying to be a stand-up comic, it was just, “Alright, why don’t I try this?” Immediately, I was like, “Oh, okay.” First thing I ever found in my life that I was pretty good at right away.
37:40 John: Yeah. You are good at it.
37:41 Mark Hughes: Good enough… And I was able to see, hey, I’m actually not bad at this. Everything else I’d ever tried in my life, I wasn’t good at and I was like, “Oh, fuck, this is going to take a long time to get good at,” right? So the comedy, I was okay at and I just went, “Alright.” And it lends itself, the lifestyle of being a stand-up comic, lends itself to a guy like me.
38:00 John: Absolutely.
38:01 Mark Hughes: It’s as close as you can be to being a junkie without breaking the law or doing drugs. because I…
38:05 John: Comedy fascinates me because underneath what makes people laugh is something that’s very deadly serious.
38:13 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
38:14 John: And it just blows me away, because you’re communicating something that’s really important, that is tragic oftentimes, but you do it in a way that, I don’t know, it’s funny. And it blows me away, that undercurrent is always under comedy.
38:30 Mark Hughes: Yep. Yeah, it’s…
38:32 Mark Hughes: That stuff, yeah, you hear all of that all the time. I just… I liked it.
38:38 John: Yeah.
38:38 Mark Hughes: It suits me.
38:39 John: Yeah.
38:39 Mark Hughes: I was finally able to go, “Okay, look, I found a thing that’s socially acceptable enough, that I don’t totally have to contort myself to fit in to society, and I can find… ” Which I didn’t think I was able to do. I talk about this with a friend of mine all the time. I’m never going to be normal, I can’t do it… I’m too… For whatever reason, my brain is too traumatized, I’m too much of a rebel, I’m too stubborn… One of them. I can’t do the 9 to 5, let’s buy a house, let’s have a family, all that. I just don’t… I can’t do it. I can’t filter my thoughts and words enough to fit in or to squeak by in an office setting, or anything like that, and I’m too lazy for construction.
39:19 Mark Hughes: Honestly. So I finally found the only thing that my strengths and weaknesses actually work.
39:28 John: Yeah.
39:28 Mark Hughes: From… So… And I… For the most part, I can say the stuff I want to say and get rewarded for it, either in laughter or money, preferably both, but if doesn’t happen, I’m good. [chuckle]
39:41 John: So you do have that creative outlet now.
39:42 Mark Hughes: Yeah, yep.
39:42 John: And can you talk about… I guess there’s two things, tragedy plus time served equals comedy. What is that?
39:51 Mark Hughes: That’s a one man show I do for fringe festivals. It’s about my life, so it’s just… Rather than focusing on the comedic… Rather than doing a comedy set, it’s more of a storytelling monologue. Just the… It’s like a 12-step share except I’ve written it so normal people can relate to it a bit more. Yeah.
40:11 John: So it’s something that you’ve written now and…
40:13 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
40:14 John: Okay. And that’s not comedy, necessarily, it’s just more of a story of your life.
40:18 Mark Hughes: 60% serious, 40% comedy.
40:20 John: Okay.
40:21 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
40:22 John: Did you… Have you published that like on Amazon or anything?
40:25 Mark Hughes: No, no, I haven’t recorded it.
40:27 John: Ohh…
40:27 Mark Hughes: Oh, no, it’s not written out, it’s a show I perform.
40:31 John: Okay.
40:31 Mark Hughes: People always say, “Why don’t you write it?” It’s like, “Ah, fuck.”
40:34 John: That’s a lot of stuff.
40:34 Mark Hughes: Someone has to sit down and write it, and I don’t think I’m prepared to do it. But I’d gladly collaborate with someone, if anyone ever wants to help me write it, I’ll talk, you dictate, no problem.
40:44 John: Okay. I need to check. I need to check that out. I was kind of curious about it because I was reading about it, I thought it was kind of interesting. And one of the articles I read about it that they described it as a play.
40:55 Mark Hughes: Yeah, I guess that’s… because it’s performed at fringe festivals it would be called a play. If you were to watch it, you’d be like, “Oh, this is a fancy 12-step convention share kind of thing,” but you don’t have to be in 12-step to get it or… And it’s tweak this here, tweak that there… So it’s a bit entertaining, sort of. Yeah.
41:20 John: Okay. And what’s Comedy Shocker?
41:23 Mark Hughes: That is my triple X-rated dark and dirty comedy show.
41:25 John: Okay. [chuckle]
41:25 Mark Hughes: So, the no holds barred comedy show that I started because I got sick of hearing people say, “Oh, yeah, people don’t want to hear those kinds of jokes.” I was like, “Yes, they do, I know they do.”
41:35 John: Yeah.
41:35 Mark Hughes: Guess which types want to hear them?
41:37 John: Who wants to hear them. The middle class guys? [chuckle] I don’t know.
41:41 Mark Hughes: No, no. Our types.
41:41 John: Oh, okay. [chuckle]
41:42 Mark Hughes: Yeah, because comics would tell me, “No, no joke, people don’t like those kind of jokes.” I was like, “Ah, I know people who meet every night and don’t drink alcohol, and drink a lot of coffee who’d love those jokes. What the fuck are you talking about?” So, I put this show together. And it became fairly successful in Vancouver. It’s… A lot of recovery people go… Not all, though, it’s not all. It’s about 50% recovery, in the 50%… And that… I just didn’t like that people were saying, people don’t like those type of jokes, because that’s not true, it’s just patently not true. It was more that people were scared of the potential backlash of those jokes. So I went, “Fuck it, I’ll create a safe space for fucking horrible jokes.”
42:26 John: Maybe it depends upon the person who’s doing the routine too. Maybe for you it’s a natural thing.
42:30 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
42:31 John: Maybe coming from you, the way that you present it, it’s acceptable. I don’t know.
42:35 Mark Hughes: Well, yeah, maybe and sometimes not. I have bad sets, and I have people get offended at my shit, but I just wanted a place where if people were going to the show they knew exactly what they were going for…
42:46 John: Yeah.
42:46 Mark Hughes: And they were paying to see… They wanted to be… The boundaries to be pushed.
42:50 John: Okay.
42:51 Mark Hughes: And because that’s the type of comedy I like.
42:53 John: And is that the routine you do in Toronto now?
42:55 Mark Hughes: I do… My routine is just is ever-evolving, and situational and context.
43:00 John: Okay.
43:00 Mark Hughes: But my comedy is… The Comedy Shocker… So if you were to watch me do a Comedy Shocker set, you’d see about 60% to 75% of the jokes I do there, I do anywhere for the most part. And then there’s about 30% to 25% that I only do at that show because I might get the show shut down, if I did those jokes. And so, yeah, there are… Some of them are bit too harsh for regular human consumption.
43:27 John: So tell me about your podcast, it’s Pulling the Trigger.
43:29 Mark Hughes: Pulling the Trigger. It was a podcast I started a few years ago and I just… I interview interesting, unusual and controversial people.
43:37 John: It is.
43:38 Mark Hughes: And/or people who have controversial things to say or interesting or…
43:41 John: Yeah.
43:42 Mark Hughes: because I’ve had far right activists, I’ve had far left activists, I’ve had comedians, I’ve had drug dealers, I’ve had killers, I’ve had prison guards, I’ve had women who work with sex offenders. And then I’ve just had people who I was like, “Hey, you sound kind of interesting.”
44:00 John: Yeah.
44:00 Mark Hughes: “Let’s talk to you.” And lots of…
44:02 John: It’s really cool. It’s really journalistic in a way.
44:04 Mark Hughes: Oh, nice.
44:06 John: Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I listened to the entire episode, the John Moses.
44:11 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
44:11 John: And then I listened to about half of another one.
44:15 Mark Hughes: Okay.
44:15 John: So and I… So that’s my only exposure to it, so I’m going to listen to more of them, though, because I really truly enjoyed it.
44:20 Mark Hughes: For the listeners of your podcast, and you, if you want to find out quite a bit about fentanyl and all that stuff, episode 4, Kyle the drug dealer. I interviewed a fentanyl dealer and he really broke down. I’m proud of that episode, because he dispelled this myth that the drug supply was tainted, and people were accidentally overdosing, because the… Again, the media wasn’t reporting this, although everyone knew. So it was the first time on record that someone was saying, “No, people are purposely seeking out fentanyl.” And I’ll leave it at that for your listeners to go and listen in.
44:58 John: Okay. I’m going to listen to that one.
45:00 Mark Hughes: Yeah.
45:00 John: Okay, so let’s wrap it up, going back to the show again.
45:03 Mark Hughes: Okay.
45:04 John: What can people expect at the show, who are they going to see?
45:08 Mark Hughes: March 28th, you mean?
45:09 John: Yeah, March 28th.
45:10 Mark Hughes: March 28th they’re going to see a bunch of comics who I love in Toronto. I love seeing what they do. So we’re going to be seeing Jarrett Campbell, Sarah Donaldson, Hannah Lawrence, Nick Flanagan, Maria Lopez and John Steinberg. And they are people who are very, very established Canadian comics, very good Canadian comics, and it’s just a regular night of comedy. There’s nothing particularly… The only difference is where the money goes at the end of the night. So the money will be going to the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, for them to run their safe injection sites and just have an extra bit of money to… because it costs… In Vancouver, one of the pop-up safe injection sites cost between $100 and $150 a day to operate.
45:56 John: Wow, wow.
45:57 Mark Hughes: I don’t know the exact figure on that in Toronto, but I’m assuming it’s probably comparable.
46:00 John: Yeah, wow.
46:01 Mark Hughes: If we raise… Let’s just say they cost $150 a day, if we raise, let’s say $1,500, they can operate with some breathing room for 10 days. Yeah.
46:10 John: Okay. They also have a GoFundMe page which I’ll link to the podcast. And when I last checked, they raised $145,000, but they want to get, I think, $250,000. So that’s great. So I encourage people to do that and support that. Well, Mark, thank you.
46:24 Mark Hughes: Thank you.
46:25 John: Thank you very much. It’s been an honor and a privilege and a pleasure to speak with you. And thank you, because I never would have known about your podcast, I don’t know.
46:33 Mark Hughes: Yeah, I just Googled…
46:34 John: And it’s a great podcast.
46:36 Mark Hughes: because I’m trying to get media attention for the show. And yours came up.
46:39 John: Oh, wonderful.
46:41 Mark Hughes: I guess you must have a lot of listeners here or something.
46:42 John: Yeah, I do actually in Canada. I have a lot of friends in Toronto. Toronto is a mecca for the agnostic atheist AA.
46:50 Mark Hughes: Yeah, it was really controversial in Vancouver, when they started it. It was like…
46:55 John: Yeah, it was.
46:55 Mark Hughes: “We’re not putting that in the directory.”
46:56 John: I know. I know.
46:58 Mark Hughes: It’s sponsors… Check this out. Sponsors would tell their fucking sponsees not to go to those meetings.
47:03 John: I know, it’s crazy. You know what’s hilarious, though? In some of the more liberal places, it was more controversial than some of the conservative places. That just blew me away. In very uptight Kansas City, it’s totally fine, but in Vancouver, it’s a problem. I don’t know. [chuckle]
47:17 Mark Hughes: because I would say, AA in Vancouver… Not that I ever go, I’ve just heard this. because I go to unnamed 12-step Fellowships. Vancouver AA, I’d say in some ways, as liberal and hippy-dippy as it might seem on the surface, it’s actually quite conservative. Culturally, it’s very conservative.
47:35 John: The AA part, and that’s how it always is, it seems, it’s like AA is a little niche that’s different from the larger community where they live. But anyway… So it’s been interesting. Thank you very much, again, I appreciate it.
47:47 Mark Hughes: Have a good one.
48:01 John: Visit Mark’s website, markhughescomedy.com, to learn more about Mark, his comedy and his podcast. If you’d like to help the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, be sure to visit their GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/torontooverdosepreventionsociety. And if you’re in the Toronto area and looking for some laughs and an opportunity to support a good cause, check out the Safe Injection Comedy Fundraiser at the 120 Diner, Toronto, Ontario on March 28. Well, that concludes another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the Podcast. Thank you for listening.